'Pressure Makes Diamonds': Ronald Jones II Ready to Step Up as Brady's Go-to RB

Tyler Dunne @TyDunne NFL Features WriterAugust 20, 2020

Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

He lets his mind wander, if only for a moment, fresh off another suffocating afternoon this offseason at the "Thrill Hill" in Scottsdale, Arizona. Ronald Jones II can see it all right now, and it's glorious.

His words stumble over each other. His voice skips a beat.    

A Super Bowl. With 100 million watching at home.

A chance to make a play that lives on forever. With Tom Brady in his huddle.

"It gives me chills now just thinking about it," says Jones, the third-year Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back out of USC. "I've already imagined what it's going to be like when he's under center and I'm eight yards [back] in the backfield, deep with him calling the cadence. I just get chills thinking about it. I never thought I'd be playing with a guy like that. With Mister Tom Brady!"

A franchise mostly cursed since its inception 45 years ago—no team has lost more often over that span—is now armed with the greatest player ever (Brady), the greatest tight end ever (Rob Gronkowski), the greatest current 1-2 wide receiver punch in the NFL (Chris Godwin and Mike Evans), a gnarly defense that's better than people think and a head coach (Bruce Arians) with two Super Bowl rings, two Coach of the Year trophies and swagger for days.

These are the Yucs no more. Jones cannot fathom the amount of talent around him on offense—"first-ballot Hall of Famers," he says, a "fantasy football"-like windfall of wealth. (He's quick to cite Lavonte David, Ndamukong Suh and Jason Pierre-Paul all as "gold-jacket guys," too.)

He believes that, yes, this offense can score at will.

He's never seen anything like this in his life.

"I don't know how much better you can get," Jones says.

We all know those names on the marquee. Who we don't know is the starting running back, the weapon Brady will be giving the ball to most this season, the quiet 23-year-old who asks to go by one simple, two-syllable moniker: "RoJo."

RoJo is the unknown.  RoJo is the key to America's most fascinating football team.

Arians made that much clear at the combine in February when he said that he wanted a Marshall Faulk- or Edgerrin James-like threat at running back. By summer, Arians hadn't changed his tune, telling B/R that Jones absolutely can get to that level "with minimal improvement."

The goal, to Arians, never changes. It's the Super Bowl. And Jones is the running back he believes can get them there.

Even if folks outside of Tampa—hell, maybe even in Tampa—still don't have a clue who he is.

"I'm ready. I've matured," Jones says. "It's time to put the money where the mouth is. I'm ready."

Here's why. He knows the whole playbook now—no longer scared and clueless play-to-play. He learned how to (literally) catch the ball and run routes, and he now believes he can be the recipient of those classic third-down Brady dimes that harpoon entire fanbases every postseason.

Down in Arizona, Jones is training to turn himself into part cheetah, part gazelle, part shark.

Two years ago, no way could Jones have comprehended this opportunity.

He was a rookie, a 38th overall pick, on the verge of being forgotten. So he looked into the mirror, asked himself one question—"Do I want to be one of those guys who was a top pick but never panned out?"—and the answer was simple. He had to make wholesale changes.

"I was like, 'No, man. I want to go down as one of the greats. I want to be a part of history. I want to make something out of this.' Guys would kill to be in this position. That's when I started killing myself with these workouts and going harder than I ever have before."

His trainer, Luke Neal, pushed him to a level he never knew existed. Now, he's ready.

The Thrill Hill—a famed NFL training site smack dab in desert heat, chiseled with steep, grueling trails—can get him to that Super Bowl moment. He knows it. As the incline gets steeper and steeper, trail after trail, his body begs his brain to quit, and Jones would have before. But not now, no. Right when he's at the edge of collapsing, Jones imagines being in the fourth quarter with everything on the line and presses on.

Luke Neal @coachLukeNeal

At some point in our lives we’re going to appreciate our struggles and celebrate our hard work as family. Jamaal williams. Ronald Jones. 105 degrees in AZ. On The Neal Thrill Hill. https://t.co/atbzYoCWKQ

There's the reality that if he does let up, he'd, uh, tip backward and fall to his demise.

And he knows if he can rip through 10 of these at a time, he'll be ready for the titanic expectations this season.

"You've got to fight yourself," he says. "There's a fight within yourself."

So he keeps going.

In Game 1 of Season 1, the plan was to light up the New Orleans Saints. All week, Jones talked smack to one of his best friends who's from the Big Easy. Right up to an hour before kickoff, Jones envisioned putting the league on notice.

Then, plans changed.

A coach informed Jones that he would not be playing, that he was something called a "game-day inactive." Right there, on a sheet of paper, he saw his name highlighted in yellow. Which was embarrassing. Which took him by complete surprise. All along, Jones thought all 53 players on a roster suited up on Sundays. Apparently, seven do not.

"And I just didn't make the cut," he says. "I can't lie man. It was ... I don't want to say 'heartbreaking,' but 'humbling' is probably the best word. It was, 'I need to make a name for myself or I won't be here.' All the accolades and everything else I did doesn't mean crap if I'm not doing it now."

Then, he was inactive again. And again. And when Jones finally did put the pads on, the Buccaneers treated him like poison that'd contaminate the entire offense. He was barely utilized, playing in just 8.1 percent of the Bucs' offensive snaps and fed a grand total of 23 carries his whole rookie season. The guy taken just a few picks after Sony Michel, Lamar Jackson and Nick Chubb didn't exactly eat with those touches, either, at 1.9 yards per carry.

None of this made any sense. Everything came so easy at USC, where Jones had knifed through defenses at will. He ran for more yards than both O.J. Simpson and Reggie Bush, and if he played his final year, he could have passed Marcus Allen for No. 2 all-time at Tailback U. His ability to rev from 0 to 60 helped restore pride to a stumbling program.

Then-USC offensive coordinator Tee Martin says Jones was "very, very special."

"When he's running, sometimes, it's like he's just gliding," Martin says. "And then all of a sudden, he's just pulling past everyone for a long touchdown."

The kid who told his parents at nine years old that they'd never have to work one day because he'd be in the NFL, the kid who'd cradle a halfback toss and outrun everyone from the moment Dad got him into the sport was now ... a bust. Finished. In career free-fall. 

Jones knew why, too: His head was spinning.

In college, he was the one too fast for everyone else. He didn't have to think much at all. He took the ball on an inside- or outside-zone play and, see ya, left everyone in the dust. Martin says coaches would just give Jones the ball and say, "Go!" because they didn't want to mess him up—his raw speed was that dangerous—but in the NFL? The playbook, Jones says, was like a "foreign language."

Jones' athletic gifts would (occasionally) shine in practice, but whenever the game arrived and it was time to process split-second decisions, he couldn't do it. Looking back, Jones admits he knew only about 60 percent of head coach Dirk Koetter's playbook that rookie year. Terrified of making a mistake with millions of people watching, he was stuck in neutral.

Instead of being that self-described "flying bullet" he was at USC—off to the races, untouchable—now everyone else around Jones was moving too fast. As a pro, he needed to make pre-snap reads and give his linemen time to get on their blocks. As a pro, he needed to know precisely where blitzes would strike and how to hit a precise hole at a precise time and, well, how to catch the ball. His stone hands were a running joke at USC.

The game needed to slow down, somehow, for him to be RoJo again.

"I definitely had to wake up," he says. "The NFL stands for Not For Long. I knew I had to do something. Something in my life had to change. Otherwise, I wouldn't be living out my dream anymore."

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

A lazy mindset was at the root of it all. The partying, the drinking, the "women"—Jones is brutally honest with himself now. He indulged in it all. His work-play balance wasn't just off. It was broken. He was broken.

"I was more caught up in, 'Oh, I'm living that life now,'" he says. "I was doing more celebrating than grinding. ... When it catches up to you, you don't want to be the one who bites the dust. I just had to get right—literally—and get my mind right. Because all that stuff will still be there. And if I'm not on the field, would these people be around anyways?"

He didn't know where to train. Wherever he went, he seemed to hurt his hamstrings.

He didn't trust people. He had built up a defense mechanism to keep anyone who could help him at arm's length.

That rookie season reached its merciful conclusion. In February, Jones hopped on a three-way phone call with his agent, Chris Cabott, and a trainer, Neal, who had requested the conversation. Neal had previously worked with one of Cabott's other clients, Packers running back Jamaal Williams (who is also Neal's nephew). He saw Jones struggling from afar and thought he could help. As he pushed his daughter in a stroller, at Scottsdale Fashion Square in Arizona, Neal detailed his tough-love philosophy.

Jones was afraid at first. He'd heard Neal wasn't playing around, that he was old-school, military-like. But he flew to Arizona anyway last offseason, because he knew a legit boot camp was probably the only thing that could save his career.

Instantly, Neal could tell work needed to be done.

Physically, sure. But the hardest thing? The hardest thing is what still gives Neal chills—"the mental."

"He was done," Neal says. "Mentally, he was out. He checked out."

As soon as Jones arrived, Neal realized just how broken the Bucs back was.

"I get it," Neal said to him. "I've been there." Neal, whom Jones describes as "a pastor, a preacher, a coach rolled into one," shared his own story with Jones and told him how he had persevered thanks to his grandfather's words of wisdom: "God votes for you. The devil votes against you. But you have the deciding vote."

"You have a choice to either continue being a bust," Neal said, "or do something about it and be great."

A month-and-a-half into their training—once it became abundantly clear just how no-nonsense this regiment was—Neal tested Jones. Mentally. He knew Jones had suffered training injuries at larger complexes before, and he knew Jones was hesitant to run a timed 40-yard dash after bulking up 12 pounds to 220. But Neal also knew he could only change Jones' life if Jones trusted him. So he told Jones the timing system would start once he moved his hand and that he'd be sitting in the stands without a care.

Jones ran a 4.46. He was shocked. He didn't believe the digital reading.

Clearly, something was working, so from that point on, Jones trusted Neal completely and began morphing himself into a new, improved, dangerous RoJo. By the time Jones headed to OTAs a year ago, his confidence was skyrocketing. He knew, for certain, that he was "a new player" and Neal knew, for certain, he'd bounce back. And he did. He eclipsed 1,000 total yards with six touchdowns.

"My whole mentality changed," Jones says. "I came out here and found gold."

So back to Scottsdale he went this offseason. And this summer, Neal (an Animal Planet fanatic) has focused the training on morphing Jones into the combination of three different animals that Tom Brady will need.

Capturing the essence of these three, both believe, can catapult Jones to superstardom.

The cheetah is the only animal on earth that runs with its claws fully extended, Neal tells him, so the cheetah can exceed 60 mph in any direction. With its tail keeping it balanced, it never slows. So they keep sharpening Jones' blistering speed. On a black track, a 115-degree day in Arizona can easily feel like 125, but there's Jones ripping through a series of 300s, 400s, 600s. Track was his first love, growing up in McKinney, Texas. He can't get enough.

And when he's on the Thrill Hill, Neal is like a narrator on those Animal Planet shows. He stresses toe strength. He wants Jones' toes gripping into that mountain like a cheetah so he, too, can juke without losing a tick of speed.

The gazelle is cunning. Many days, it leaves the cheetah hungry by thinking two, three steps ahead. Jones' football IQ needed a lot of work, so using the mind has been a daily focus, too. Arians wants a back who'll never come off the field (think David Johnson in 2016) so, through very specific drills, Jones is molding himself into a receiving threat and mastering 100 percent of the playbook.

Anyone wondering how a back goes from catching 0.8 balls per game at USC to seven total as a rookie to 31 (on 40 targets) in Year 2 to, he hopes, Faulk- or Edge-like production in Year 3, can simply look at the drills Neal has him running. He'll make Jones catch footballs with a patch over one eye, throwing him the ball at precise angles. If the ball's low, near his knees, he needs to use his pinkies. If it's high, above his chest, he needs to use his thumbs. If the ball is fired to his side, near the sideline, Jones has now learned how to cradle it with his pinkies touching so he can keep sprinting at full speed.

Rojo ひ @rojo

I sweat money and the bank is my shower 😂💰💨 https://t.co/sVtOihbFLC

Jones believes his hands are now twice as good as they were his rookie year. He's no longer worried about getting drilled in the midsection when the ball arrives, and he's no longer looking upfield too soon. He understands where to go better, too. He never even learned how to run routes in college. At USC, he was only used on screens and dump-offs. With Neal, he has built up a full repertoire: slants, go routes, hooks, curls. Because in the NFL, Jones quickly realized, linebackers also can pull that 4.4 in the 40. He can't just outrun everyone with straight-line speed. He needed some finesse.

Maybe the drill that helps most with that finesse is a game of "Tag." Going against a simulated defense of six-plus helpers, Jones is given a handoff and must run for his life. If a "defensive lineman" touches him with one hand or a "linebacker" or "defensive back" with two, he's down. Cones serve as the remaining defenders.

Photo courtesy of Luke Neal

It turns the field into a puzzle Jones must solve.

He must be cunning. Like a gazelle.

No wonder Arians says the Jones he thought he was inheriting last season versus the one who hit the field was a "night-and-day" difference. No wonder when Martin watched every snap of the Buccaneers' 2019 season this offseason, he couldn't believe how sticky Jones' hands were, saying aloud then, "Oh, OK! He's looking better!" Faulk caught 80 passes in five straight years. That's the goal for Jones in an Arians offense.

"Consistency is a big word for him right now," Arians says. "He's working hard on his hands and improving as a receiver. ... I think he's got so much talent—hopefully it can all come to fruition this year."

And the great white shark is king. Neal tells Jones there's only one shark that all the other sharks fear—the great white. And when he showed him video of the 2,000-pound behemoth jumping 10 feet above the surface of the water, Jones' mind was blown and they went right on back to the Thrill Hill to unearth Jones' own killer instinct.

These timed sprints up the hill, the length of a football field, in the scorching heat, fuel Jones' evolution more than anything.

That's why when you mention Edgerrin James and Marshall Faulk to him, he brings up a running back who's even better: Walter Payton. That's who he's striving to be, which makes training with Neal the perfect fit. Payton used hill training to make himself great, saying he'd kill himself to the point of not being able to walk.

The Thrill Hill is designed to do the same for Jones.

Steep and rocky as it is, getting up the hill is a nightmare Jones says "97 percent of America" couldn't handle. Right when your body's telling you to collapse, you must attack. And attack. And attack. (And look out for that family of rattlesnakes.) You jog back down, and the rest is short. Neal is blowing his whistle to send you up again.

Jones unlocked corners of his mind he never knew existed.

"It's really all mental," Jones says. "As you get up to the top, your wind, you start to get dizzy. So it's all about pushing yourself. Once you're on a football field, you'll never have to climb a mountain, so running 100 yards is nothing at that point. ... You can cheat the hill. You can try to jog up it. But when it's gut-check time, you're going to know what you put in. And you can't expect more than what you put in to get out because that's just not how life works.

"You know what it costs to be the boss. I'm trying to be a boss in this game."

Adds Neal: "Now when you play your opponents—when you're in the fourth quarter—that's when the great white comes out and you start hitting these chunk plays. You're just biting the hell out of these guys, taking these big chunk plays, and hitting them with moves with the gazelle part, and then when you get into the open field the cheetah part comes in, and there we go!"

Photo courtesy of Luke Neal

Now, Jones' mind is clear.

Now, comes the greatest challenge of his football life. The rookie once afraid of taking the wrong step on a sub-.500 team nobody cared about is going to be lining up next to one of the most competitive athletes any sport has ever known, possibly for 70-plus snaps a game. Pick your Super Bowl hero. Kevin Faulk. Julian Edelman. James White. Danny Amendola. They always knew exactly where to be for Brady in the biggest moments.

Running up a hill is nice. But Jones has never, ever, faced pressure remotely close to this. Brady will be barking in his ear soon enough.

Can he handle it?

Before he was lost as an adult, he was lost as a kid.

Utterly, unequivocally lost.

He remembers the call from his grandmother. Ronald Jones Sr., his father, had died. He knew Dad had heart problems, but not the details. Apparently, Dad had been on a list for a heart transplant and ran out of time. On Sept. 14, 2012, he suffered a fatal heart attack.

Jones, a sophomore in high school, missed one day of school and one day of practice. He played in that week's football game.

Outwardly, he tried to soldier on. He wrote a eulogy but was too hurt to read it when the time came.

"It was really tough," he says. "I was lost."

Turning to the Alliance of Elite Youth Leadership (AEYL) in McKinney helped him heal. Giving back to the community through this group provided purpose, and seeing others with unimaginable day-to-day problems—some beaten by their parents, others going most nights without food—gave Jones a perspective he keeps today. Seeing his mom, Jackie Dockery-Jones, fight helped too. Somehow, she supported five kids on her own. ("I still don't know how she did it.") Mom left the house early for her social work job and didn't come home until late. Jones would chip in however he could.

He pressed on.

He remembered the promise he made to both Mom and Dad when he was nine. He knew the talent inside of him could change his family's life forever.

As he reflects on it all, on the life decisions that shaped him, that led to this moment, Jones realizes just how perfectly equipped he is to handle all pressure.

The date of his Dad's death is tattooed on his body. The tragedy didn't crush him; it became part of him.

So did his decision to stay at USC when he wanted to bolt. Before preseason camp even began his freshman year, he wanted to quit because he was homesick. The lingo, the people, the atmosphere. L.A. life wasn't for him. Jones felt like he was in "no man's land," shocked to learn there was gang violence just a few blocks from campus.

He was told you're "on your own" if you wander in that direction. He didn't have a car. He wasn't sure what areas were good or bad. This was "just ... different."

Mom's lifelong message echoed in his ears—Finish what you started—and he stayed because USC was his dream school, after all. He loved watching Reggie Bush as a kid. He knew Dad was watching from afar.

Says Jones, "Nothing worth having comes easy."

So, faced with another defining moment in his life, written off as a rookie, of course Jones would look into that mirror and make real, substantive changes. Of course he'd replace one life for another. For Neal and Scottsdale and the Thrill Hill and all the sweat and pain.

It was in him all along.

He knows this now.

"I had to surround myself with people who are motivated," Jones says. "If you're not around like-minded individuals, they'll bring you down. I don't blame anybody but myself. I thought [pro football] was college but getting paid for it. That's not the case in the NFL. It's a job title and a business."

He's gotten tight with Jamaal Williams, the Packers running back. They pushed each other daily in Arizona. Neal was the perfect mentor at the perfect time, the closest Jones has had to a dad since his dad died.

Jones calls this a match made in heaven.

"I just have to thank the football gods for bringing us together," he says, "and making this dream work. We're just getting started now. That's the best part. It's only Year 3."

Jones promises to prove people wrong in 2020. Don't let his chill tone fool you. He saves receipts. He keeps screenshots of tweets and articles of writers who wrote him off saved in his phone. Extra juice for the hill. Which, sure, Neal likes. Any motivation is good motivation. Still, Neal made a point to remind Jones of their first heart-to-heart. When Jones was finished. 

The same lesson applies here. Jones cannot obsess over the doubters because, in the end, people will be for you. People will be against you. And you cast the deciding vote.

And that's what Jones plans to do. This season.

"I'm ready," Jones says, "to be that workhorse."

Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

So far, so good. Jones thinks he made a great first impression. In late May, in Tampa, he and Brady worked out together for the first time, and Jones couldn't wait to tell Neal he went all week without a single dropped pass.

Brady, he believes ... he hopes ... was impressed.

Afterward, Neal picked Jones up from the airport and back to work they went.

Jones is bound to have opportunities in this offense, with Gronk and Godwin and Evans bound to draw so much attention. Via the run, via the pass, count on there being many lanes and crevices and pockets in defenses for Jones to exploit. All those games of "Tag," all the one-eyed catches, all of the SEALS-like climbs up the hill lead to this chance to light defenses up. Assuming he can win the job. The Bucs have some competition for him in free-agent signee LeSean McCoy, who had 465 rushing yards for Kansas City last season, and rookie Ke'Shawn Vaughn, a third-round pick with a pretty serious pedigree out of Vanderbilt.

Neal believes. He thinks this cheetah-gazelle-shark hybrid is ready. Then he offers another analogy.

Picture a freshly sealed highway, he says. Jones will slide into a high-performance vehicle this season, slam the gas and drive as fast as he damn well pleases.

"It's going to be scary, man," Neal says. "He's going to be scary."

Martin agrees. He sees All-Pro potential in Jones.

What does Jones himself expect? To be a "home run hitter" and to gain Brady's trust in any situation. He knows Brady will bring his own checks and balances to Arians' already complex offense, and he welcomes it.

He doesn't hide from Super Bowl expectations, assuring, "I like our odds."

And the Bucs—the Bucs!—will be appointment viewing this fall. Their five primetime games are the most in team history. So many eyes will soon be on Jones. Try to scare the hell out of him, try to find that petrified kid somewhere beneath the veneer, the kid afraid to make a mistake as a rookie, and he doesn't hesitate.

He knows everyone is now watching this team.

He wants the ball in his hands.

He wants the pressure.

That is the sign of a new RoJo.

"I was made for this," he says. "Pressure makes diamonds.

"We're going to put the league, the world, on notice."


Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.


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